The publicized embrace late last month between Holocaust survivor Eva Kor and former Nazi Oskar Groening at his trial in Germany was particularly poignant for me. I had just returned from Berlin with my wife. While there, we visited the Topography of Terror, located where the Gestapo Headquarters once stood. During our visit, we learned something we had never known before – that as part of their training, members of the SS were taught how not to empathize with their victims.
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What? I had always assumed that the Nazis were by nature heartless bastards who relished every moment of tormenting and killing Jews. Yet, it turns out that, in fact, they had to learn not to empathize. For all the Holocaust seminars I had attended and Holocaust documentaries I had seen, this little tidbit of information had been absent, perhaps out of ignorance, perhaps to strengthen the narrative that the Nazis did not have a shred of humanity in them. The visit to the Topography of Terror was the first time that I noticed the Nazis' perspective in more than just a superficial manner.
So when Groening’s trial commenced on April 20, a week after my return to Israel, I paid attention to signals of his humanity; that he had asked to be transferred out of Auschwitz, and that he went public about his story later in life to refute Holocaust deniers. Thus, Kor’s gesture made sense to me.
Yet, it reportedly caused disgust among dozens of co-plaintiffs in the trial and drew an irate response among some commentators.
“The trial is not a fraternization show or a forgiveness party, but one of the last opportunities for the German legal system to react to the hell of Auschwitz with the rule of law,” wrote Gisela Friedrichsen in Der Spiegel (as translated by The Guardian).
But what is the desired function of the law when it comes to atrocities, or for that matter any serious crime that cuts at the bone of society, be it murder or corruption? Is it purely to punish? Is it to punish as a means to either feel a sense of retribution, or to deter others from repeating the deed? Or is it about rehabilitating the criminal?
Kor, a survivor of Josef Mengele's infamous experiments on twins, has learned to forgive her tormenters more for herself than for them. Rather, she has a different task in mind for the surviving war criminals.
"My idea is for people from the victims' side and people from the perpetrators' side to come together, face the truth, try to heal, and work together to prevent it from ever happening again," she wrote in her blog to explain her actions.
Kor asked of Groening to use his experiences to address the problem of neo-Nazism. “Because these young misguided Germans who want Hitler and fascism to come back – they will not listen to Eva Kor or any other survivor,” she told him. “You can tell them you were in Auschwitz, you were involved with the Nazi party, and it was a terrible thing."
This theme of providing criminals opportunities to contribute to society, rather than to simply punish, is universal. Lalla Weiss, a Sinti whose father survived the Holocaust against the gypsies, spoke this weekend on the occasion of May 4, the Dutch Remembrance Day that combines elements of Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Day and Memorial Day. She spoke of her father’s powerful message that people must be given a second chance. The key is not simply to forgive and forget. Trials must go on. Rather, the key is to consider how that perpetrator can best serve society with their second chance.
From Rwanda and Yugoslavia to Iraq and Syria, publicly punishing war criminals doesn’t deter others from committing heinous crimes. Giving former criminals opportunities to do good in the world and spread the message that former enemies can get along has a better chance of reaching individuals before they set off on a destructive path.
Dr. Steven Klein is an adjunct professor at Tel Aviv University's International Program in Conflict Resolution and Mediation, and is a senior editor at Haaretz.